They Shall Not Grow Old a box office blowout – for good reason
Was there ever a more consequential war than World War I? As a result of the bickering petty politics of Europe's inbred monarchs, we got communism and the Soviet empire from it, for one. We got 37 million deaths, millions and millions of bright people, a death toll so high that it skewed the demographics of nations such as France. We got grotesque forms of warfare – trench warfare, chemical warfare, and Howitzers, shell shock, tanks, and huge civilian death tolls. We also got the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire – Europe's first truly internationalist empire of tolerance and melting pots – to be replaced by the crummy and oppressive European Union. We got the creation of the morally relativistic cultural Eurotrashiness of Europe in that war's wake, too – dada art, stupid other kinds of modern art, and a Europe that refuses to fight or stand up for itself, no matter what may come down the pike. The death toll allows us to recognize the rationale with sympathy. And as an awful coda, the war was so badly resolved that it led to a second and even bigger world war. So this is a war that's still very much with us in effects, one hundred years after the armistice was signed.
This is why Peter Jackson's brilliant documentary is so compelling, just on topic alone. It's the 100th anniversary of that war's end, and the Imperial War Museum wanted someone to come in and look at its archives of grainy, jerky, faded, black and white footage to bring back to everyone today just what happened, show how that war looked. Jackson, the Academy Award-winning director of The Lord of the Rings, who has an artist's eye for color, visuals, and framing a story, did a brilliant job framing this one through the eyes of the British ordinary soldiers in the war, having them tell their stories in the documentary, using oral histories from the BBC taken in the 1960s and 1970s, and pairing it with on-the-ground war footage of the soldiers themselves – signing up, uniforming up, acting like the World War II soldiers with "a job to do" – and dealing with trench warfare, privations, mustard gas attacks, Howitzer attacks, land mines, barbed wire, rats, lice, and bloody dead bodies, with considerable courage and aplomb. Not all of them were victims, as literary classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms suggested, worthy as those writings are (and what a pity the Millennials don't read them). The soldiers cracked jokes, got used to deaths all around them, and dealt with the ordeal.
Jackson brought them and their stories to life and made us care about them by using new technologies to clean up the grainy, deteriorated archival film, colorizing it and making it appear recognizable. In doing that, he's created a documentary that's been called "breath-taking"; "astonishing"; "a masterpiece"; "an epic, enduring experience"; and "amazing, astounding, gorgeous, incredible." Seriously, the documentary got some rave reviews, from the whole spectrum. Let me add my own since I saw it last night: Magnificent!
Why was it great? Well, because the film broke the tired truism that the soldiers were just victims, which is what is taught in schools. Jackson was so scrupulous that he kept politics and current lefty narratives out of the whole thing, let the soldiers tell their story, with no Ben Rhodes-style "narratives" at all, making the whole thing just a tad politically incorrect, since the good and bad of the entire experience were all laid out from the oral histories of the soldiers themselves, in their own words.
That's what journalism used to do, and now a filmmaker, one not all that connected to the Hollywood swamp, given that he's a Kiwi, has picked up that torch. It's refreshing. And it's what audiences want from Hollywood: the whole picture, not the icky "narratives" we usually get.
Not surprisingly, the whole thing has been a box office blowout. It was shown for two nights in December, including last night, and drew more than $5 million. I got the ticket for it because I read some of the rave reviews and was fascinated by the film restoration aspect in addition to the history. There was a half-hour adjacent film segment of Jackson discussing how the constructed the film, restoring and editing the old clips.
According to Deadline Hollywood:
EXCLUSIVE: We are hearing that the encore presentation of Peter Jackson's WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old from Warner Bros. has set a brand new record for Fathom Events making an estimated $3.1-plus today from two showtimes at 1,122 theaters. That's the highest-grossing single-day ever for a documentary playing via Fathom, and one of the top-grossing single-night presentations of any kind from the events company.
Originally, the Dec. 17 presentation of They Shall Not Grow Old set the record for Fathom with $2.3M. Today is bound to beat that figure and sends the documentary to a current running total that's north of $5.4M.
For a while there, I was wondering why the film was set to run for only two days, given the huge public demand. Deadline reports that relief is on the way on that front. The film will open in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington on Jan. 11, and then in 25 major media markets on Feb. 1, Super Bowl weekend. Given the public's disgust with the NFL, it's a perfect weekend for the open. It's a flawless means of sending the message that political pollution is not what audiences want.
What's more, Deadline says it missed the Academy Awards' deadline for documentary, which it would deserve to have won if it were on that list. In a way, that makes it more of an honor, too, knowing it's not polluted by Hollywood games.
What a refreshing difference. Yes, it's a great documentary, and it's great because it's pure. No political correctness, no Hollywood gamesmanship.
Go see it when it comes to your town.
Image credit: A screen grab from my cell phone ticket.